Are Economic Sanctions Blunt Weapons?
OPINION |

Are Economic Sanctions Blunt Weapons?

RUSSIA HAS BEEN THE TARGET OF SANCTIONS SINCE 2014 BUT THIS HAS NOT PREVENTED THE ESCALATION CULMINATING IN THE CURRENT MILITARY INVASION. HOWEVER, ONCE DIPLOMACY HAS FAILED, SANCTIONS REMAIN THE ONLY PEACEFUL WAY TO BRING THE PARTIES BACK TO THE TABLE. HOWEVER, THEY MUST BE CAREFULLY DESIGNED

by Paola Mariani, Bocconi Department of Legal Studies
Translated by Richard Greenslade


The invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation takes us back to the dark times of the last century.  The use of force against a sovereign state for ill-concealed expansionist goals worries everyone in the world, regardless of geographical proximity to war zones. Mind you, war as an offensive tool in relations between states continues to be used, although since the entry into force of the Charter of the United Nations in 1945 international law has been consolidated in prohibiting the use of force, with the exception of legitimate defense (individual and collective). The prohibition of aggression, understood as the recourse by one State to military operations against another State, is a precept that belongs to the category of mandatory norms of international law (jus cogens).
 
Such a serious offense, when committed by a permanent member of the Security Council, is even more worrying because it puts the United Nations and the collective defense system provided for in the Charter out of play.  This means that if a single state or coalition intends to intervene in the ongoing armed conflict, this will take place outside the only universal multilateral system in place.
 
In this very first phase, the international community united in opposition to Russia's actions (not everyone has condemned them, see China) seems to converge on a massive use of economic sanctions.
 
The instrument of economic sanctions to react to violations of international law has been widely used since the late 1990s and after the attacks of September 11 it was the main instrument of the fight against international terrorism.
 
Sanctions have evolved steadily over the years, from the first total embargoes with devastating effects on the populations of the affected countries, we have moved on to more targeted actions both in the object of the economic restriction and in the affected subjects.  There is a tendency to sanction limited economic sectors, trying to maintain trade in essential goods for the population while affecting the State and its organs or individuals, individuals and companies.
 
The Russian Federation has been the target of economic sanctions since 2014 following the military annexation of Crimea.  Many Western countries, the European Union and the United States in primis, have adopted various packages of sanctions in these eight years of conflict, but this has not prevented the escalation to the war of Russian aggression.  In light of this, there is legitimate doubt about relying on an instrument that has shown such limited effectiveness.
 
Starting from the premise that in a system of sovereign states there are not many alternatives to the use of military force for the repression of illicit actions, economic pressure remains the only "peaceful" way to bring the parties back to the negotiating table once the diplomatic path has failed.
 
The point is not sanctions per se, but rather their ability to weaken the government of the country targeted by the sanctions, not only in international relations, but also internally. In designing sanctions, it is necessary to identify the target (public or private subjects) the forms of trade, investments and forms of circulation that will be subject to limitations. To do this it is necessary to have clearly in mind the articulation of international economic relations, the sectors most exposed to exports and their organization but also the model of political organization of the country. Hitting the energy sector, for example, could weaken Russia even internally, considering the influence that the Russian oligarchs who control that market can exert on the regime.
 
The difficulty in adopting effective sanctions is closely linked to the mutual negative effects on the economies of the states adopting sanctions. And this is all the more true when situations of economic dependency are created. The Member States of the Union, faced with the worsening crisis, have agreed to extend sanctions to the energy sector, as the United States has long demanded, although for many of them, starting with Germany,  the economic repercussions will be heavy. The effect of sanctions on the markets of the countries that adopt them should not be underestimated, also in terms of democratic consensus when the economic measure has a widespread negative impact.
 
Finally, the effectiveness of a sanction comes from being part of a coordinated action of a sufficient number of states that can lead to the isolation of the sanctioned country. The reaction of the international community seems compact and most market economies have adopted or are about to adopt sanctions on the model of European and US ones. But even states that do not agree with the use of sanctions can jeopardize effectiveness. China's role is determined by the success of Western sanctions. If China decides to act as a sidekick for Russia, occupying the market spaces left free, the economic sacrifices that the sanctions bring with them risk being in vain.
 
There are many variables at stake and doubts about the effectiveness of sanctions are legitimate, but let us remember that if we choose not to remain indifferent to international lawlessness, the only alternative to sanctions is war.

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